Abdi Roble

Abdi Roble
Learning Log

Abdi Roble

Report date
June 2017
Fellowship term
24 months
Learning log 2

In addition to leadership development and archival management training, the Fellowship gave me an opportunity to study colonial visual images in the form of postcards as they make up a bulk of the collection I am currently archiving. I began locating secondary sources that further explain, discuss and analyze colonial visual infrastructure. This infrastructure was used to encourage acceptance of colonial rule in the colonies and entice potential settlers from Europe, among other things. As part of the archival practicum at the Immigration History Research Center Archives (IHRCA), I began to build inventory and cataloguing sets of images under themes that are dated in the early 1920s to 1950s while simultaneously researching the context in which these images were created.

Extensive use of visual images during Colonialism

It is important to note the global impact of the new technology of photography in the last century. The photograph, unlike text, could record social reality with much detail than any other medium before it. As a result, it served as an important tool for communication. In fact, the most popular form of communication from the colonies was the postcard. Having understood significance of visual images in the form of postcards in advancing the colonial project in the Somali Territories, colonial administrators used photography to market and advertise the colony. As in other colonies, it was also used to encourage settlement of Italian Somaliland and the agricultural South between the two rivers, Shabelle and Juba, as well as to legitimize the practice of colonialism. Some of the postcards were designed and orchestrated to portray Somalis as happy smiling subjects of the Empire. Cultural dances and celebrations were documented. Other images showed mundane activities such as farming, animal husbandry, women making crafts at market stalls and pottery makers at work. Rarely do these images show the grueling work at banana and cotton plantations in the South and the daily dehumanization of colonialism where Italians settled.

As I delved into researching postcards of that era, I had an opportunity to closely examine some of the photographs by colonial photographers. I began to review newspaper articles, academic books, journal articles and official documents from British and Italian colonial administrations. Informed by Edward Said’s foundational text “Orientalism,” which explored European representation of the “Other” in art, literature and history, I became interested to learn how extensive visual images were used in advancing colonial project in Somali territories. Visual images were imbedded in all facets of colonial infrastructure including administration, missionaries, military and settlement activities. Photographers, painters, cartoonists, graphic designers, sculptors, writers, filmmakers, print and radio journalists were dispatched and employed to produce content for the sole purpose of legitimizing colonial activities. In the case of Somalia, most of the photographic documentation in 1920s was done by Carlo Pedrini, head of the Royal Laboratory Photo Film Mogadishu for the colonial administration from 1926-1932. Printed in the 1930s as postcards, for propaganda purposes, titled "true picture," some of them are part of the collection of postcards and photographs that I am currently processing for archive.

Another interesting aspect of studying and researching colonial iconography in the Somali Territories is the clear contrast between how the Somali female body and male soldier “Askari” were presented in the photos. The women were often photographed laying on a bed or leaning forward against wall, nude or half-naked, instructed to look directly at the camera smiling while the titles read “Somali Beauty” or “Black Venus.” As Sandra Ponzanesi put it:

"Although the photos taken resemble many photographs of European divas of silent movies, the accent on semi-nudity and the claim to be faithful images of local beauties as they naturally appear in everyday life only reinforces the ideological implications of sexual exploitation. The thing you notice is that these women are obviously naked, since this nudity is patently not their habitual garb. The shot is full length, reclining, lying on animal skins or with a demure attitude – inviting the camera’s lens to appropriate them for Western voyeuristic consumerism – and fixes the black female body in her atavistic difference, available for visual pleasure but trapped in her biological and genetic reduction." (Ponzanesi, 2005)

In contrast, the Somali male soldiers’ photos depict vertical fixed pose directly gazing at the camera with a blank face, obediently loyal subject ready to die for the Empire. In fact, most of the images lack description of name of subject, date, location or any identifying content. This erasure characterizes colonial iconography.

New discoveries on colonial iconography

Another set of images I have been preparing for archive involved the infamous "Human Zoos" as part of ethnic exhibitions. These included groups of Somalis from colonial British Somaliland that toured Europe and the Americas from 1885 to 1930, to show their native culture in “natural state.” Unlike images taken in the colonies, the travelling “exhibitions” attracted interest from scholars who publish articles and books on them. As such, I began collaborating with a Somali scholar, Bodhari Warsame, who specializes on these exhibitions in preparation for a manuscript publication in the future.

Linking specific images in the collection to historical events

One of the most interesting discoveries involved analyzing contents in the images and their subjects. Upon close examinations and further research, I was able to identify a prolific Italian colonial photographer who produced hundreds of these images for the sole purpose of luring male recruits from Southern Italy at the height of Italian occupation of Ethiopia. I was also able to locate scholarly articles that describe propaganda campaign those sets of images were part. As such, I am able to construct detailed narrative that link specific set of images to particular event, Italo-Ethiopian war of 1935 and subsequent occupation of 1936-1941, relying on independent secondary sources. This method is useful for building cohesive formal archive that is organized under themes. The end goal is to meticulously arrange materials in my possession in this fashion for future exhibitions and presentations to the community.

In a nutshell, not only am I able to gain hands-on archival management training, I am also able to gain an in-depth understanding of the content in some of visual images in the collection. And, I am grateful for the continued support afforded to me thus far through the fellowship.